The Prophet vs The Wizard – Innovation vs Efficiency

I have always been a great fan of how Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, the authors of Freakonomics, are able to take Micro-economic concepts and issues and create incredible hypotheses. For the first chapter, they take a thought-provoking question, ‘What do Schoolteachers and Sumo Wrestlers have in common?’ and proceed to carve through data and prove a shared relevance of the two subjects in question.

In a recent podcast, ‘Two (Totally Opposite) Ways to Save the Planet’, they discussed Charles C Mann’s book, The Wizard and The Prophet. In the book, Charles C Mann frames the different camps of ‘Wizard’ and ‘Prophet’ and the historically significant scientists who have fallen under each category. Mann goes on to discuss how effective each one is in ensuring our world can support the human population when it reaches the predicted population of 10 billion, in 40 years’ time.

Wizard and the Prophet

The Wizard urges us to charge forward, taking an optimistic stance with confidence in the power of technology to solve our problems. This is represented by finding solutions to imminent issues and ultimately reducing them away. Examples include renewable energy initiatives, Lithium batteries and nuclear energy – an extremely effective energy source with low emissions.
The Prophet sounds the alarm, takes a pessimistic viewpoint and urges us to end the cause of the problem. This logic is represented by initiatives like the Paris Climate Accord – a goal of reducing existing issues by focusing on the effects of present activities.

Levitt and Mann talk at length, trying to solve the mystery of whether the Wizard or the Prophet is a more effective influence. They look in depth at different ways the two types of scientists can work together, and how an individual might combine the qualities of the Wizard and the Prophet.

When listening to this, I couldn’t help but think of an interesting and comparable everyday model that provides a similar question;

Innovation vs Efficiency

The innovator is someone who takes an existing technology and improves it. This is not to be mistaken for the inventor, who is more influential as they do something new altogether. The innovator is the person who says, ‘if it ain’t broke, we are going to make it better anyway’, and is represented in the workplace by entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs. I liken this character to the Wizard, a relentless optimist who believes that technology is without a doubt going to shake up the status quo for the better and create true value.

Efficiency is a focus on taking something and making it more fruitful. This approach requires less energy and ultimately creates a product, service or process to a higher standard. This approach is fundamental for day to day life and must be achieved to avoid limiting growth opportunities. I see characteristics here that are akin to the Prophet, looking to blow the whistle and find ways to reduce the impact of the existing arrangement.

Long argued in the work environment – and the subject of many a company’s demise – is; how do you prioritise these?

There is a fantastic TED talk by Knut Haanaes titled ‘Two Reasons Companies Fail – and How to Avoid Them’. Haanaes opens with the line: “they only do more of the same, or they only do what’s new”, seeming to immediately answer his own hypothesis. There is a fantastic graph (at about 7:59 on the video), which represents the proportions at which a business should focus on innovation and efficiency, relative to different time scales. It shows a chart, where efficiency decreases and innovation increases, as the time in focus increases.

A stark example of the two working together is highlighted in Yuval Noah Harari’s book, Sapiens. The invention of fire led to a more efficient use of the body’s energy – requiring less effort for muscles meant more energy for the brain. In turn, this allowed us to evolve into a species of superior intelligence and providing the stepping-stones to untapped progression with the creation of more sophisticated tools.

Considering the above, when used in the correct proportion it becomes a match made in heaven, enabling the business to reduce the average cost, whilst avoiding complacency. Introducing ethics will ultimately lead to a positive impact on the company’s environmental and social responsibility.

Where Zupa sits in all of this

To conclude, you always need a Prophet and a Wizard. The prophet is needed for the immediate future, to refine current procedures. The Wizard uses all available resource to plan long-term business strategy.

Where is Zupa positioned, from an innovation point of view? We are taking proven technologies and applying innovation to eliminate ethical concerns caused by the internet’s existing business model. In doing so, we are building a cohesive platform for a new market altogether – a GDPR-friendly data marketplace.

This is not a logic that we reserve for ourselves, as we begin to create a platform that stimulates innovation and competition for the UK. We will do this by providing the tools convenient to global businesses, and for SMEs (Small to Medium Enterprises) to build their own following and make their efforts known locally and nationally. We seek to provide a balance in helping diminish the negative effects of consolidation and saturation, whilst promoting its benefits – economies of scale and improved efficiency.